Pilot Exposure, Even Without a Pickup, Pays Off for Talent

It’s sweepstakes time in network TV.

Executives at the Big Four and CW are hip deep in the annual ritual that plays out in darkened screening rooms, as groups of staffers, assembled with focus-group precision to reflect target demos (assistants and interns see a momentary spike in clout), evaluate this year’s crop of pilots in the hopes of finding next season’s big sensation. The sizzle of Fox’s “Empire” has restored the industry’s faith that network TV can still field an overnight sensation. Really, it can.

After a few days of screenings, buzz begins to coalesce around the handful of projects out of 80-plus broadcast pilots that will get a series pickup. But buzz is an unpredictable and volatile mistress. There are innumerable examples of sure things that went south at the last minute (“Beverly Hills Cop” with Eddie Murphy and Shawn Ryan? On the air! Until it wasn’t.)

The pilot process is often criticized by top TV honchos as wasteful, because so many millions are spent on projects that never see the light of day. But for talent, particularly actors and writers, there can be real upside to the exposure that comes with being in a pilot, even if it doesn’t take off.

Case in point: Brandon T. Jackson, who starred as the son of Axel Foley in CBS’ “Beverly Hills Cop” pilot in 2013, hadn’t done much in TV since a comedy speccial on Nickelodeon in 2006. But post-“Cop,” he’s landed a regular role on NBC’s upcoming comedy “Mr. Robinson,” as well as logging an arc on Showtime’s “Californication” and guest shots on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.”

Ellie Kemper, now starring in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” had heat following the end of “The Office” in 2013, but there were questions about whether she could carry a show. Though 2013 NBC comedy pilot “Brenda Forever” was destined to be “Brenda Never,” it nonetheless put to rest doubts about her chops as a leading funny lady.

Among the standout performers in this year’s crop of hopefuls are overachieving writers who have managed to get not one, but two scripts made into pilots.

Danny Chun delivered the Whoopi Goldberg-Jermaine Fowler comedy “Delores & Jermaine” and Fox’s “Grandpa,” both of which appear likely to land orders. (And if that weren’t enough, Chun just got a pilot picked up at cabler ABC Family, “Gorgeous Morons.”)

The writing team of Casey Johnson and David Windsor have two draft prospects at ABC: an untitled NBA buddy comedy and “The Real O’Neals.” No matter what happens, it’s a slam dunk those two have big momentum. Meanwhile Blake McCormick showed his range by writing the CBS drama “Rush Hour” (with Bill Lawrence) and the NBC comedy “Strange Calls” — both of which are high on the hot lists.

No matter where the pickup wheel lands, the list of actors who can bank on newfound heat includes Paula Patton (ABC’s “Runner”), Justin Hires (“Rush Hour”), Philip Winchester (NBC’s “Endgame”), Jaimie Alexander (NBC’s “Blindspot,” which got the series nod May 1), Florence Pugh (Fox’s “Studio City”), Ken Jeong (ABC’s “Dr. Ken”) and Danny Pudi (NBC’s “Strange Calls”).

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